Thoughts on the passing of Hugh Hefner

I wanted to take a moment on my blog to consider the legacy of Hugh Hefner after his passing earlier this week. It has been strange watching the stormy interplay between in the media between the people who admired him, the people who saw him as a complicated contributor into the culture, and the people who see him as a destructive misogynist. In death he accomplished (if briefly,) something few people have managed to do in the past 20 years: he got us talking in complex terms about masculinity.

And, with at least some of the influential voices media in North America finally realizing that identity politics just isn’t a useful way for understanding the human experience, in many quarters discussing Hefner’s contribution to the culture was surprisingly honest and civil.

Not that everyone resisted the temptation to signal their purity to the current ideological orthodoxy; there were plenty of people willing to decry him as a monster that took the objectification of women to a new level. But the vapid virtue signalling was not as fast and furious as it might have been even three years ago. The rules of engagement are shifting.

I think the most telling indicator that the terms of engagement are changing is that Hollywood insider decided to publish the analysis of one of the greatest intellectual renegades of our time, Camille Paglia, with her incredibly incisive and generally favorable analysis of Hef’s life and contribution. I highly recommend giving it a read.

When Heffner started Playboy, he set out to completely re-imagine masculinity for North American Men. With the exception of Esquire, most magazines for Men in North America were focused on the same outdoorsy kind of masculinity that Westerns Romanticized: simple, direct, and tough. Articles were often focused on hunting, fishing, survival skills, firearms, mixed with a dose of business and financial tips. Playboy offered a totally different take on the Masculine that borrowed a lot from the European sophisticate and the Beats, and made it uniquely American.

The Playboy that Hefner envisioned was a smart worker – he made good money and took his work seriously, but he didn’t live to work or define himself by it. The money he made by being ambitious was there to help him enjoy the finer pleasures that life had to offer. The Playboy appreciated art, music, cinema, fashion, and technology. He was up on the latest electronics, had a fine stereo system, and listened to the cutting edge of the music scene on a stereo in his elegantly decorated den while enjoying a fine wine or whiskey.

The Playboy also enjoyed sex and sexuality. In a way, Hefner’s Playboy was in many ways a complementary persona to the educated women of the late 50s and the emerging sex-positive feminists of the 60s. Like the sexually liberated woman of his time, the Playboy was a natural response to the birth control pill and the sudden possibility to separate sex and pleasure from marriage and family. The Playboy was not looking to find the perfect wife and settle down: he set out to romance beautiful woman in a slow and artful manner – sharing with her the pleasures of all the fine music and art  that his hard work could bring home – leading to seduction and a relationship that developed commitment on its own terms.

Contrary to the current narrative, The Playboy as he was originally envisioned was far from a misogynist. He was interested in romance as well as seduction – he appreciated sex and the female body, but he also was interested in women as people. There was no contradiction between appreciating the beauty of the female form and wanting to hear what a woman had to say. Playboy Magazine was very quick to hire and promote female editors, writers, and columnists, many of whom describe the work environment at playboy as being respectful and friendly.

Poster for Our Man Flint ©1965, 20th Century Fox

If there is a Hollywood icon of the Playboy writ large, I would say that it would be Derek Flint of Our Man Flint and In Like Flint.

The Playboy certainly didn’t really stay the exclusive creation of Hugh Heffner and Playboy Magazine. A number of other, often very influential magazines and cultural institutions evolved to serve the emerging Playboy culture, including Rolling Stone, and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. The early culture around MTV was certainly as oriented towards the Playboy as it was the Yuppies who shared an obsession with popular music.

The Playboy was only one of a number of competing images of masculinity that Birth Control made possible, and he was distinctly rooted in the culture of the US and Canada of the 1950s. He was quickly supplanted by competing archetypes like Hippies, Yuppies, Neo-Marxist Intellectuals and the All-American country boy.

In the end, The Playboy didn’t compete well with the free love ethos of the Hippies or the sheer ambition and materialism of the Yuppie. The Playboy was already a little behind the times and a little too conservative for the tastes of many Baby Boomer men, when Playboy Magazine hit the scene. As he became wealthy and famous, Hugh Hefner became something of a parody of his own ideal – a Peter Pan who lived in his pyjamas, ate and worked in his bedroom, and was waited on hand and foot.

The sex-negative mutations of the second wave of Feminism, especially as it was embodied by Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin also could not resolve the idea of  Man who liked looking at (soft) pornographic imagery and someone who could see women as human beings. The idea of sexual objectification as it was espoused by the feminism of the late 60s and early 70s made The Playboy into a villain and a pervert in the cultural narrative by the 1980s.

And, of course, Playboy opened the way for a new generation of gentleman’s magazines, Like Hustler and Penthouse. Rather than focusing on helping men create a healthy and positive attitude towards sex in the world after birth control, as Playboy Magazine did, many of the later generation of magazines were simply interested in selling sex, and made it easy to denounce the Playboy of being an exploitative figure.

Being, depending on how you look at it either, a very young Gen-Xer or a one of the oldest Millennials, from Canada Hugh Hefner’s influence had become so much a part of the background radiation of our culture of masculinity. The Playboy was one of many archetypes I grew up seeing around me both in real adults and in the media.

Playboy Magazine Logo

The Playboy was a different, more sophisticated, but on some levels less appealing figure than the other options that Canadian boys my age grew up with. I didn’t even look at a Playboy until I was Nineteen, but I didn’t need to in order to understand the ideals, attitude, and lifestyle then Playboy Magazine was trying to create. The Playboy was a constantly reappearing meme complex that pervaded boys media. I doubt many of us knew anyone who actually lived a Playboy lifestyle, and very few of us were actually interested in living one.

It took a level of personal and intellectual work two meet the ideal of the Playboy as Hefner envisioned it, rather than as he embodied it. Many of the other archetypes of masculinity that men my age: the gangster, the new-ager, the hipster, the new feminist man, the postmodern intellectual, the Gen-X slacker, the preppy, and the extreme athlete, simply never required.

Men my age were essentially brought up with options and archetypes that were not interested in the Finer Things and personal development. Rather, the options presented to us we’re either carefully cultivated rejections of Western Civilization, with all the attendant Finer Things like art, wine and romance; or they aspired to a sort of monastic purity of the intellect that rejected such Fine Things; or, in the case of the European preppy archetypes, they replaced Finer Things that actually would fulfill you and make your life pleasurable with endless consumption of expensive status symbols in the latest gadget, replacing being a Savvy consumer with ambitious consumerism.

I’m honestly not sure that the Playboy’s time ever really existed. As a archetypal male, he is always being in competition with archetypes that offer easier answers, and either a sense of moral superiority, easier sex, or an even wealthier lifestyle. The dialogue on sex is so confused in our society and the idea of a man who both enjoys pornography and appreciates women as human beings seems anathema to our current narrative.

Certainly, it seems that men have always been on the back foot trying to figure out what to do you get along with women in a world where sex no longer means babies. The joy of Seduction and the idea of creating a relationship on its own terms over time never really took hold. We seem to have moved from extremes, shifting from in a culture of men seeking to marry and settle down to a culture of hookups where sex has become completely divorced not just from marriage and children, but from relationships. Those men who do commit long-term often do so either on the old set of rules, or they don’t really think about what they’re getting into in a relationship and don’t negotiate for what they want. I don’t think we even have a language to negotiate a sexual relationship in a meaningful manner yet, outside of the Notions of marriage.

Despite the fact that he never had his time, I do believe the Playboy is an important masculine archetype. I think that when all the nonsense of identity politics, sex negativity, and this stupid gender war finally burn themselves out, we are going to need to find a way for people to negotiate relationships that are sensual and fulfilling.

I suspect there are cultural developments coming down the pipeline, like reliable masculine birth control, sex robots, artificial wombs, collaborative online education, mesh networking, and easier roads to entrepreneurship that will change fundamentally how men exist in the world. It will change how the genders collaborate and what they want and need from each other. Enjoying your life, appreciating the Finer Things like art, creativity, music, and fine food and drink will become more important to men, and work will become less and less of a central and defining component of their lives. Sex will be in Pursuit, rather than a scorekeeping method, or a desperate need. When that time comes an honest assessment of what Heffner was trying to get at might be central to a conversation on how to redefine masculinity.